A wildland firefighter reflects on two years of growth
and evolution since a mental health crisis
By Erik Apland
It’s been two full years since I wrote my blog post “Breaking Down the Walls that Isolate Us” in which I revealed my personal journey surrounding mental health and addiction in hopes that my story might help us all better understand each other and build a path forward.
I’m not sure why, but recently there has been an uptick in people reading this blog post and leaving comments.
I went back to read these comments and was confronted with all the previous comments—none of which I had responded to—from shortly after the blog post went up in early 2020. I apologize to all those people who wrote and reached out then. Rest assured, I read these then and they were very meaningful to me. But, at that time, it was beyond my capacity to respond directly.
With the passage of time and the little bump of traffic on this blog post, I thought about what has changed since I wrote that piece two years ago and what might be worth sharing about these changes.
This updated blog post is my attempt at trying to share whatever meaningful thoughts and revelations I have had in the last two years, and hopefully to share a perspective that those reading this may find helpful.
My Fire Family
I work in the Sierra Nevada where fire has become increasingly uncontrollable in the last five years. During this time, the majority of my Forest has burned.
Sometimes we have these conversations. People end up gathered together without having planned to do so. I listen to my friends talk about the shocking things that have happened during the last few years. These successes and failures are all in the language that we understand. Fire rolls and marches and chews, and people make a stand or peel back a ridge. It is storytelling and passing the time, but it is also trying to understand, and remembering what in the dark times was sometimes beautiful, or funny.
What I didn’t appreciate when I wrote my blog post two years ago is how disintegrated one can become between who they are in their working hours and who they are at home.
When you’re going through a hard time, work can be your saving grace, or your prison, or neither—something that you just sleepwalk through. For me, work could be anesthetic. Whether we were out in the parking lot or gathered around a pickup at the Drop Point, when we talked there was nothing else in the world and nothing else on my mind. That was until I was out in the forest on my own and could seemingly only reflect on what an intractable mess everything seemed to be.
My job wasn’t the cause of my problems, though at times, it may have exacerbated some of them.
Because I recognized that work wasn’t really my problem, I could sometimes convince myself that when people talked about mental health issues in wildland fire, it didn’t really apply to me. For me, wildland fire seemed incidental.
In that respect, it almost seemed presumptuous to think or talk or write that way about myself. But two years ago when everything did all fall apart, I had a small group of friends and family, and I had my fire family. They were there, leaning on tools and spitting at their feet, laughing, and opening the circle for me when I walked up.
There’s a short sci-fi novel written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky called “Roadside Picnic” about the strange aftermath of an extraterrestrial visitation to earth. The area the aliens briefly visited—The Zone—is now very dangerous, full of strange objects and places where reality is bent and broken.
So many things happen in a life, even a short one. It seems like we all charge the objects and places in our lives with odd and sometimes dangerous powers. I look around my house and see things I know have more dimensions than meets the eye. Objects argued over, or left and forsaken; pictures looking down vacantly from the walls. They witnessed and soaked in everything over the years. Like a snowy hillside, they radiate all that energy back out, mainly in the night.
I remember explaining to the police, on a broken phone connection in the middle of nowhere, why despite something I had told a friend I did not need a welfare check; just leave me alone. I was standing at one of the few spots far out that have cell reception. I think about that call and others every time I drive over “CELL” spray-painted on the pavement at the magic spot.
It’s the same with the office and the truck and the forest itself. Of course, it was not aliens who left these objects and changed these places. People did this—most of all me —but they seem increasingly alien and difficult to identify with.
In Roadside Picnic, experienced and courageous people called Stalkers can navigate The Zone, collect priceless objects, and can even guide “regular” people safely through. I have had many Stalkers these past couple of years. There are some obvious and important ones like therapists, but there are many others that point out little things here and there.
After two years, I can now handle the dangerous objects and go to the places where memories exist right alongside the present.
The Value of Mentors
Very recently I helped lead a local Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX) event with dozens of community members eager to learn about fire and to use fire to improve the land they own or steward. They included private citizens, tribal members, students, nonprofit employees, and others.
The group maintained strict COVID-19 protocols. Nevertheless, the amount of social interaction I experienced over those three days surpassed everything in the last two years, combined. These were people who took a long weekend to be out there and were eager for us to tell them what we knew. They stood out in the cold rain with us to listen.
During those three days of this TREX event, I recognized consciously a few things I had not understood so clearly before. I saw the value of mentors who show the behaviors of not just a good and safe firefighter, but a healthy and complete human.
I saw how work that has meaning can make me better than who I am on my own, and better and more fulfilled outside of work as well. And I saw how spending time with people who believe there is a future, maybe even one to be optimistic about, can make it clear there is a point in being around a while longer. It took about a year for me to get past being passively alive to genuinely looking forward to the future, wanting to grow and thinking the future might be better. These people feed that development. Their optimism is enough for me to want to see if they’ll be right, even when I don’t always feel it myself.
There is Always Fire
Our whole world is haunted, permeated with memories and regrets. Our whole world is The Zone. I was lucky and found guides, Stalkers, mentors, who have shown me how to live in our scary and heartbreaking world.
And there is always fire. The weight of the torch in your hand, the dirty smell of wildfire smoke. A natural force of unimaginable power that rolls and marches and chews. It can take so much from us and it can renew, too. It is neither good nor bad, it just is and always will be.
In much of the reporting by the media, in our own casual conversations, and in my own mind, the burned areas of the last few years are “destroyed,” or “nuked,” or “gone.” We speak as if fundamental physical laws have been defied and the land has simply ceased to be.
Of course, some things are gone in the way we had come to know and understand them. Some precious things have been destroyed, and some people have been cruelly taken from us. Looking at what remains, with the people who remain, we can acknowledge that time won’t stop and what has changed won’t stay in its charred, broken form forever.
I hope that we can move forward to shape what will come, in our lives and on the land.
Burning piles last week, a thought came into my head, not connected to any other conscious thought: “Nothing is over. In fact, many things have barely started.”
I want to see what happens next.